The United States is facing a dropout crisis. Only 76 percent of public high school students earn a diploma within four years of entering the 9th grade, a rate lower than 40 years earlier. The United States ranks 21st among industrialized countries in the proportion of youths who complete high school. We will never achieve President Barack Obama’s goal of having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world without solving our dropout crisis.
Just as the dropout crisis is not new, neither are attempts to solve it. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy initiated a national campaign to increase publicity about the problem and to help local school districts in identifying and helping potential dropouts. In 1990, the nation’s governors adopted six national education goals for the year 2000, including a high school graduation rate of 90 percent.
Past efforts to solve the nation’s dropout crisis have largely been unsuccessful. Government agencies and private foundations have collectively invested billions of dollars in dropout-prevention programs, comprehensive school reform models, and new charter schools. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation alone invested more than $2 billion in small high schools, yet research has identified few effective models. In a 2008 review of 22 dropout-prevention programs, the federal government’s What Works Clearinghouse did not find a single program proven to raise high school graduation rates, which is stunning.
Whether current efforts will be more successful remains unclear. The Obama administration has committed $3.5 billion to transform the nation’s lowest-performing schools, including 2,000 so-called “dropout factories” and another $50 million to invest in innovative dropout-prevention and -recovery strategies. The America’s Promise Alliance has supported more than 100 dropout summits in states and major cities across the United States, and a number of innovative school models, such as early-college high schools and Big Picture Learning schools, are expanding throughout the country.
Instead of defining high school success solely in terms of mastering a common, college-preparatory curriculum, we should develop a broader and more individualized measure of high school success."
Yet these efforts are unlikely to make a substantial dent in the dropout crisis. First, the federal government’s School Improvement Grants do not appear to be targeting the nation’s dropout factories. For instance, none of the grants awarded in California or Texas targeted high schools with the most dropouts. Second, federal funding for dropout-prevention and -recovery strategies is inadequate to develop, implement, and evaluate a suitable set of programs. Third, program evaluations pay insufficient attention to costs, sustainability, and scalability. For example, although the acclaimed Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, schools have been proven to raise graduation rates, they spend up to $6,500 more per pupil than regular public schools. If effective schools indeed require higher per-student costs, then how scalable are they in the current fiscal climate?
Truly addressing the nation’s dropout crisis will require more substantial and comprehensive strategies, including:
• Redefining high school success. Federal and state accountability systems judge the performance of students and schools largely on a very narrow range of cognitive skills, particularly focusing on reading and math. Meanwhile, states and districts are raising high school graduation requirements. As a result, high school is getting harder and success more narrowly defined.
The current mantra is “college-ready for all.” Yet recent projections, including one by the Center for Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, find that less than two-thirds of the job openings in the U.S. economy between 2008 and 2018 will require any postsecondary education. And an increasing body of evidence finds that success in college, the labor market, and adult life requires a broad array of skills, including motivation, perseverance, and self-esteem.
So, instead of defining high school success solely in terms of mastering a common, college-preparatory curriculum, we should develop a broader and more individualized measure of high school success where students achieve a sense of competency by demonstrating mastery in an area that most interests them—whether it is math, physics, cooking, mechanics, or sports—while achieving acceptable proficiency in core academic areas.
• Providing incentives for educating all students. The federal government will soon judge school performance using a common graduation rate based on the number of regular diplomas awarded to students within four years of entering the 9th grade. Students who transfer to another high school will be excluded in calculating the original school’s graduation rate. Because schools are accountable for improving the achievement of their current students, this provision provides incentives for schools to encourage the most-challenging students to transfer, sometimes to lesser, alternative schools. Indeed, almost half the dropouts in California come from nontraditional high schools.
Instead, schools should be provided incentives to ensure the educational success of all students who enter as 9th graders, even if they transfer. One way to do this is to include all students who spend at least one semester of their 9th grade in a school’s 9th grade cohort when calculating graduation rate, regardless of whether the student remains in the school.
• Build systemwide capacity. Evaluations have consistently concluded that past reform efforts have largely failed because they rely on mandates and resources to force schools and staffs to change their practices over the short term rather than building their capacity to improve over the long run. Current reform efforts largely follow the same formula.
Without a clear and focused effort to improve capacity at the federal, state, and local levels of the educational system—a principle for reforming the No Child Left Behind Act advocated by the Center for Education Policy—these efforts will likely fail. Building capacity should include using state and local data systems to conduct ongoing evaluations of innovative programs and practices, together with a mechanism for disseminating and scaling those proven to be effective.
• Desegregating schools. Whom you go to school with matters. Research has found that the socioeconomic status of the student body can have as much impact on student achievement in high school as students’ own socioeconomic status. So the high segregation of U.S. schools by race and poverty contributes to the nation’s dropout crisis. Two-thirds of all high schools in the United States in 2002 with more than 90 percent minority enrollments had fewer than six in 10 students remain in school from 9th to 12th grade.
While some of the inequalities associated with segregated schools, such as differences in teacher quality and financial resources, can be addressed without desegregation, one of the most powerful influences on student achievement—the socioeconomic status of the student body—can only be addressed through efforts to integrate schools.
• Strengthening families and communities. School-based approaches alone are unlikely to solve the dropout crisis without providing adequate support to families and communities. Many students—particularly members of racial, ethnic, and linguistic minorities—come from families with insufficient fiscal, human, and social resources to guarantee success in school. One in five American children lives in poverty, with the proportion exceeding one in three for African-American and Hispanic children. Our nation has the highest child-poverty rate in the industrialized world.
Improving dropout and graduation rates in the United States is likely to be a never-ending goal, akin to improving health care or the environment. Setting specific targets—such as President Obama’s goal that the United States achieve the highest college-completion rate in the world by 2020—is probably less useful than undertaking a more fundamental commitment to improving the lives of children and strengthening the families, schools, and communities that serve them.
A version of this article appeared in the October 26, 2011 edition of Education Week as Solving the Nation’s Dropout Crisis